Women’s basketball wasn’t able to earn a share of the UAA title this weekend, but as it turns out, the Maroons will not need the title in order to keep on playing.
Even after falling 71–60 to visiting Wash U (23–2, 13–1 UAA) in Saturday afternoon’s regular season finale, Chicago (19–6, 11–3) still garnered a bid to the NCAA tournament when the brackets were announced yesterday morning. The Maroons will play their first-round game against Simpson (22–5) this Friday in Bloomington, IL. Simpson picked up its NCAA berth by beating Coe in the IIAC championship game on Saturday.
Chicago learned it will be making the trip to Bloomington, where Illinois Wesleyan (26–1) will be hosting a four-team regional, yesterday morning during an NCAA webcast that most of the Maroons watched at Ratner. If Chicago gets past Simpson on Friday, then on Saturday they’ll play the winner of the Illinois Wesleyan–Franklin (21–6) matchup.
The odds-on favorite to emerge from the region will be Illinois Wesleyan, currently the third-ranked team in the country. The Titans played at Chicago December 5 and ultimately won that game 64–57, though the Maroons led by as many as nine points in the second half.
“We knew all season [the regional] was going to go through Hope [another of the midwest’s best teams, it was going to go through Illinois Wesleyan,” head coach Aaron Roussell said. “To be honest, though, when you see your name go up there, you’re just so happy to be in the tournament, you don’t worry too much about the teams.”
Although Chicago was likely to make the tournament regardless of how this weekend’s date with Wash U turned out, the game offered the Maroons, who suffered a 63–34 defeat in St. Louis earlier this year, a shot at redemption plus the chance to share the UAA crown with Wash U if they won. With the way Chicago played in the minutes after the opening tip, it looked like redemption and a championship banner were all but assured.
Over the first two minutes, Chicago’s five fourth-years—who all got the start for Senior Day—built up a small lead for the Maroons by keeping the Bears without a single point. Chicago quickened its offensive pace by subbing in a more typical lineup just past the 18-minute mark, and soon enough the Maroons had built a 9–3 advantage and forced Wash U to take its first time-out.
Fourth-year Micaela White said the Maroons’ emphasis on playing together in the early going Saturday helped them put their previous struggles with Wash U behind them.
“In the first half I think we did a good job of relying on the team to make plays instead of individuals,” White said. “We got good looks and finished well.”
Although that stoppage gave the Bears a moment to regroup, play had hardly resumed before second-year Joann Torres stroked a three, igniting another Chicago run that would end with the Maroons on top 19–10 after a layup by second-year Taylor Simpson.
That layup was only the start of an impressive performance from Simpson, who finished the game with seven rebounds and 14 points on 6–7 shooting from the field. However, it also marked the turning point for Wash U, which began to pull closer on the strength of three-pointers from guard Alex Hoover and forward Kathryn Berger, plus a handful of short jumpers and layups by forward Jamie McFarlin during the final stretch of the first half. At halftime, the teams were tied at 33, though Wash U had led by as many as four points.
After halftime, momentum never swung entirely to Wash U’s end, but the Bears returned from the locker room hitting 50 percent of their field goals and incrementally built their lead until they were up 60–49 with less than nine minutes to play.
The Maroons, on occasion, appeared primed to make a run, but they never cut their deficit back below six points, and Wash U sealed a 71–60 win that was cushioned by Chicago’s desperate fouling in the game’s last moments.
The change from the first half to the second half of Saturday’s game was less a matter of Chicago falling off, and more of Wash U starting to play like the two-loss team and defending national runners-up that they are. That the Maroons still played the Bears fairly evenly, with the exception of a few quick runs from Wash U, should be a source of assurance heading into the tournament.
“We’ve played a tough schedule this year and I think Wash was one of a couple games that should give us the confidence to play with anyone in the country,” White said. “Obviously the tournament is one-and-done, so we’re going to have to finish close games like that.”